All season long, Haines sophomore Sarah Lende has been so far ahead of the field she really hasn't been pushed during Southeast high school cross-country running meets.
Lende's looking forward to taking her undefeated record this season to the state meet Saturday at Skyview High School's Tsalteshi Trails in Soldotna, where she will be among the top contenders for the individual championship in the girls Class 1A-2A-3A race. If Lende wins, she will be the first girls champion from Haines and she will bring the Glacier Bears their third individual title (Carl Blackhurst won the boys titles in 1993 and 1995).
"I really can't wait," Lende said of the state meet. "I haven't had someone on my heels all year. I think it would be fun to have someone push me. But it will be kind of scary, too."
Lende took fifth place at the state meet last year as a freshman, behind teammate Ella Allred who took fourth place. But Lende has improved so much this year that Allred's improvement has almost gone unnoticed. Allred, a senior, took fourth place at state last year and third place two years ago, but this year Lende is posting times at least a minute faster in most races. Last weekend's Region V-Class 2A-3A meet was their closest battle, and the two Haines runners finished 1-2 with Lende beating Allred by 58 seconds.
Even when the Class 4A girls are in the mix, Lende's still finished on top. The only time she really had much of a challenge was in a meet at Sitka three weeks ago when Ketchikan's Jodi Jakubek, who won last weekend's Region V-Class 4A title, was running about 30 seconds behind Lende before dropping out of the race about two-thirds of the way through the course.
"I don't really know how she'll do at state, I have no idea," said Heather Lende, who serves the dual role of Sarah's mother and Haines' coach. "In practice, Sarah runs with the boys team and she won our last time trials. She's gotten into the habit of winning by a minute, and when she gets that far ahead I think she slows down."
The Haines boys won the Region V-Class 2A-3A team title last weekend in Juneau. The Haines boys will send a team to the state meet (Petersburg qualified second but chose not to send its team), as will the Wrangell and Mount Edgecumbe girls (who beat Haines out of a team berth on a tie-breaker).
In the girls individual race, Lende and Allred aren't the only returning top-five finishers from last year's Class 1A-2A-3A state race. Ashleigh Thomas of Grace Christian School, who took second at state last year, finished about a minute ahead of defending state champion Rebecca McMahan of Glennallen in the Region III-Class 3A meet. Another top contender is Danielle Pratt of Susitna Valley, who won the Region II-Class 2A-3A race and finished seventh at state last season. The top girls team is Grace Christian School, with Susitna Valley and Seward being the other major contenders.
The favorites in the boys race are Aaron Gogain and Shaun LeBaron of Anchorage Christian Schools, Doug Wickler of Grace Christian School, Susitna Valley's Ivan Steadman, Klawock's PJ Bush, Petersburg's Richard Montgomery and Trevor Millar of Heritage Christian School. The top boys team schools are Anchorage Christian, Grace Christian, Heritage Christian and Susitna Valley.
"I think that would be great," Sarah Lende said of her chances to win a state title. "I'm hoping I can. But I've set my goal to finish in the top five if I don't win. I kind of want to go in Carl's footsteps."
Lende isn't one for the slow tactical races, where the champion is decided in a mad sprint for the finish line. Instead, Lende likes to push the pace early so she can wear out her competition, much like the late Steve Prefontaine. Lende said she's followed the careers of runners like Prefontaine, but he died before she was born and her running role models tend to be her contemporaries. Lende said she considers Blackhurst an inspiration because she was able to actually watch him train when she was younger.
"I hate an all-out sprint at the end, like you get at the end of the two-mile in track," Lende said. "I always try to put a little bit of time (on the next runners) on the hills and around corners. If I go hard here and hard there, then at the end I won't have to use my kick."
Still, if it does come to a sprint at the end of the race, Lende is one of the top 400-meter runners in the state in track.